Judy Muller: If you look closely and quickly, you'll spot them. They are everywhere -- under cars, in the bushes, on roofs. They are feral cats, wild and untamed -- as many as two million of them roaming the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
And L.A. isn't a bad place to call home for these guys. That's because it's on the way to becoming a "no-kill" trap-neuter-release city. A "no-kill" policy means not euthanizing animals unless they are dangerous or sick.
Trap, neuter and release, or TNR, is when feral cats are trapped, spayed or neutered, and then released back into communities. And that approach appeals to folks who want these critters to live all of their nine lives. But there is a downside.
Amy: It’s unbelievable. If wild dogs were running around, they would immediately come do something around.
Judy Muller: Because there are wild cats in Amy's neighborhood, she took it upon herself to deal with the source of the problem. She asked her neighbor to stop feeding them. He refused. So Amy spent a small fortune on a pest exterminator to kill fleas in her home, and she doesn't even own a pet.
Amy: And he said it was one of the worst infestations he's ever seen and I was really upset because all of these horrible chemicals had to be pumped into our home.
Judy Muller: Complaints to the city and county went nowhere. Meanwhile, cat colonies were cropping up everywhere -- in West L.A., for example, where we met Joe.
Joe, Los Angeles Homeowner: On our street, there were 60 to 70 cats.
Judy Muller: When he contacted the city he was told he needed to trap the cats himself. So he did.
Joe: My neighbor and I trapped over 55-60 cats and there were still a lot left over.
Judy Muller: Captured ferals end up here, in a city animal shelter. Most are not adoptable as pets and after a week or two, they are euthanized, but not if Christi Metropole can get there first.
Christi heads the Stray Cat Alliance. She has been celebrated for her work, spaying and neutering thousands of cats throughout L.A. And despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations she’s accumulated, she claims her groups and others are the underdogs when it comes to fighing for cats’ rights.
Christi Metropole: They don’t have any money, they’re just cat ladies out here trapping, and fixing, and feeding…
Judy Muller: Well, not exactly. Some cat rescue groups have multi-million dollar piggy banks. They are well-funded, and well-mobilized. They even host feral cat conferences, like this one recently held in Marina Del Rey. Folks from around the country gathered to learn about "feral freedom" and "community cat management."
Travis Longcore: They claimed they had an ownership in those cats, but then when it comes to responsibility, they don't want to take any responsibility for them.
Judy Muller: Travis Longcore is founder of Urban Wildlands, a nonprofit which protects species and habitats in urban areas. His group successfully sued Los Angeles in 2008 and put a stop to the city's trap-neuter-release program.
Longcore is concerned the release of feral cats into communities is impacting the wildlife. And the impact can be huge. According to a new study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service, cats are killing some two and a half billion birds a year.
Christi Metropole: That's been refuted and you can look at studies that rats kill them, that pesticide, habitat loss, windows, windmills, cell towers -- those are the real reasons birds are dying.
Judy Muller: So we should just let all the cats live that want to be living out there in the wild?
Christi Metropole: We need to spay and neuter.
Judy Muller: But spay and neuter doesn't stop cats from killing birds, and it doesn't stop cats from defecating on lawns, and spreading disease. And that's what an L.A. County public health official warned of in this 2011 report. It urges L.A. city officials to reject a TNR program, citing the potential for "widespread flea infestations" and "disease transmission."
In 2007, workers and children at the daycare centers at Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center in Downey complained to the L.A. County Public Health Department.
They were besieged by 150 feral cats. They suffered flea bites and were overwhelmed by cat feces. In October 2008, an aide to supervisor Don Knabe ordered the cats' removal but also cautioned "we can expect to get a lot of backlash from the animal rights community."
Judy Muller: And there was. Rescue groups mobilized and threatened legal action. Cities officials are often caught in the crossfire. Brenda Barnette moved from Seattle to take the job of general manager for L.A.'s animal services. She is the fifth one in 11 years. Her predecessors were subjected to protests from animal rights groups.
Brenda Barnette: There is more passion in this particular business on every side of the street than you could possibly imagine.
Judy Muller: She's trying to referee L.A.'s fights over cats. The latest battle is over the city's proposed cat program, which would bring back trap-neuter-release to L.A. An environmental assessment of the program is about to begin and will look at the impact feral cats have on wildlife and neighborhoods. As drafted now, the program would legalize the feeding of sterilized feral cats and exempt them from the pet limits.
Travis Longcore: If this program were to go into effect, the person across the street here could decide they just really love cats, and put them in their backyard, and they could develop a colony of 50 or 60 feral cats right there and there would be no recourse that any of the neighbors or the park users would have.
Judy Muller: Cat politics aside, almost everyone in this struggle agrees on one thing -- more effort should be put into the adoption of healthy animals.
Brenda Barnette: I think what we have failed to do is let people know what amazing animals we have.
Judy Muller: And, some would add, do a better job of controlling the ones that roam untamed and unchecked. It won't be easy. The phrase "tough as herding cats" is, in this case, no metaphor. I'm Judy Muller for "SoCal Connected."
Approximately two million untamed feral cats roam the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
Some homeowners are concerned about the increase of feral cats in their communities. They aren't too keen on letting feral colonies run around freely, only to be greeted by a trail of feces on their front lawns.
Some advocacy groups and homeowners are pushing for the "trap, neuter, and release" method, commonly known as TNR, which aims to trap feral cats, then spay, and release them back into the community without causing a nuisance or burden to homeowners.
In this 2012 segment of "SoCal Connected," reporter Judy Muller examines Los Angeles' proposed no-kill policy, which aims to not euthanize animals unless they are dangerous or sick.
What are your thoughts on feral cats and L.A.'s proposed no-kill policy? Do you live in a neighborhood infested with feral cats?
Featuring Interviews With:
- Amy, Los Angeles homeowner
- Joe, Los Angeles homeowner
- Christi Metropole, Stray Cat Alliance
- Travis Longcore, Urban Wildlands
- Brenda Barnette, L.A. Animal Services